- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2014


As Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee awaits his fate after a meeting with owner Ted Leonsis, something needs to be said before we move on analyzing what is wrong with the Capitals and whether or not McPhee can fix it.

There is some kind of injustice that the general manager who works for Leonsis who has had 12 out of 18 winning seasons and 10 playoff appearances – including an Eastern Conference championship and a Stanley Cup finals appearance – is in danger of losing his job.

But Leonsis‘ other GM, Ernie Grunfeld, who has a record that would make Matt Millen blush – 355-528 –  and who presided over the destruction of the Wizards, is likely to stay on because his team finally reached the playoffs again after five straight horrendous seasons.

It seemed like Grunfeld was job security for McPhee. After all, how could Leonsis fire McPhee and keep Grunfeld?

But the stars have aligned – with the Wizards making the playoffs the same season the Capitals have not, in year 17 of McPhee’s tenure, a tenure that, while far more successful than his basketball colleague’s, is defined by playoff failures, one early exit after another. His greatest achievement – reaching the finals – was last century.

Alex Ovechkin was 12 years old when the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals.

Ovechkin just completed his ninth season with the Capitals, and all Leonsis has to show for it are six playoff appearances and three second-round exits. Heck, Leonsis wasn’t even the owner when McPhee had his greatest success. That came during Abe Pollin’s final years as Capitals owner.

McPhee has failed to capitalize on the success of one of the best goal scorers of his time, a three-time NHL Most Valuable Player. That’s what all this comes down to. He hasn’t figured out how to win with Ovechkin.

There is no other option. The notion of trading such a talented, expensive star player who has filled the Verizon Center season after season is not on the table. No, you have to put the right players – and particularly the right coach – in place to make the most out of the time that Ovechkin is here.

That’s obviously not easy to do, and some believe it is impossible.

NHL analyst and former veteran player Jeremy Roenick wrote on his web site earlier this season that he didn’t think the Capitals could win with Ovechkin.

So, in these meetings between Leonsis and McPhee – or any meetings between the owner and whoever is going to run his hockey team moving forward, this is the only question worth asking, the only question you have to have a good answer for:

Can you win with Alex Ovechkin? If so, how?

Adam Oates can’t seem to. Ovechkin may have flourished under Oates as a goal scorer, but the rest of the team has floundered, particularly defensively.

But McPhee can’t seem to, either. He has failed to find the right coach to use his roster to get the most out of the team while also getting the most out of Ovechkin as well.

Glen Hanlon failed. Bruce Boudreau seemed like the right guy, leading the Capitals to their best regular season in 2009-2010, winning 54 games and the President’s Trophy as the league’s top regular season team. But there was the embarrassing first round exit to eighth-seeded Montreal, and by the end Ovechkin was cursing Boudreau out for being benched, so he failed as well.

Oates, as we have seen this season, has failed to answer that primary question – can you win with Alex Ovechkin.

The only one McPhee has hired to coach this team who seemed to get closest to reaching that goal was the coach who diminished Ovechkin’s role the most – Dale Hunter.

Hunter’s defensive style turned Ovechkin into a role player, and they arguably had the most success with that system – upsetting the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round and taking the New York Rangers to seven games before losing 2-1 in the final game.

Brooks Laich told reporters Monday that the best style the team has played for a chance to win the Stanley Cup was that season under Hunter. But the former Capital decided that life back in London, Ontario, where he runs the successful London Knights franchise in the Ontario Hockey League, was better than being Alex Ovechkin’s coach, and walked away from the job after one season.

It’s a bit troubling that one of the Capitals star players believes they had their best chance to win in a season where Ovechkin’s role was downplayed. That can’t be the answer, either. They are wedded to Ovechkin.

It’s up to Leonsis to determine if George McPhee can make that marriage work, or find someone who can.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.

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